Hygge on cold winter nights

Two Norwegian Americans revitalize curling in Brooklyn

Brooklyn Curling Club

Photo: Courtesy of Than Tibbetts/Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club
Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club’s weekly curling league at the LeFrak Center at Lakeside in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, N.Y., on Feb. 20, 2020.

The Norwegian American

Like most other group activities in New York, the Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club (BLCC) was forced to suspend its play because of the coronavirus pandemic. But recently, the club happily disclosed they would resume activity in mid-November.

“I can’t wait,” said Michael Goering, board member for BLCC and Brooklyn Curling Center. “I’ve got my gear hanging right there.” “Usually, our season starts in early November,” said Charles Donefer, former president of BLCC. “Our club was founded in 2014, after nearly a century without any recorded curling in New York City. Since becoming an Olympic sport, American curling expanded quickly from its traditional home in the Upper Midwest to nationwide popularity, and our club is part of that.”

Although curling first appeared in the Winter Olympics in 1998, the sport has a deep history. It is believed to have developed on the frozen lochs of Scotland in the 16th century. Over time, it spread to Scandinavia, Canada, and the American Midwest.

Most newcomers are initially bemused by the sport: two people using brooms on a sheet of ice—as though they’re cleaning it—in front of a 45-pound granite “stone” as it slides toward the bullseye-shaped “house,” on the other end of the ice.

But research by FiveThirtyEight reveals that curling has become the most Google-searched Olympic sport in recent years, surpassing figure skating. Additional interest throughout the United States was sparked by the American team’s first gold medal in curling during the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

Norwegians, for their part, may have brought the sport back from their forays into Scotland, but today there are 27 curling clubs in Norway. Norwegian curling caught the eye of spectators worldwide when its Olympic men’s team first wore their signature multi-colored, checkered pants at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Norwegians might also have brought curling to Brooklyn a century ago during the period of Scandinavian immigration. Either way, its revitalization is helped by the fact that Goering and Than Tibbetts, CEO of Brooklyn Curling Center and BLCC board member, both have Norwegian ancestry.

Plus, those pants. The Norwegian pants were “absolutely a help,” Tibbetts said. “That’s the kind of people that come out to curling. They’re fun, interesting, and come from a wide range of backgrounds,” he added. “It’s this fun, quirky sport people get to claim as their own. That’s right in line with the ethos of those pants.”

Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club

Photo: Courtesy of Than Tibbetts/Brooklyn Lakeside Curling Club
For the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, B.C., the Norwegian men’s curling team showed up in pants with zany, colorful designs, inspiring a movement worldwide.

After its first open house in November 2014 drew 100 people, the club quickly became the fastest growing member of the 152-year-old East Coast-based Grand National Curling Club. Today, 900 people are on BLCC’s mailing list.

Of its members who responded to a survey about returning amid COVID-19, 85% say they plan on curling while using safety protocols.

A future goal is to create a dedicated indoor curling facility, which could have eight curling sheets, so eight matches could run concurrently. The non-profit partner organization, Brooklyn Curling Center, was created to pursue this.

The idea originated in the sport’s tradition of “broom stacking,” the practice of teams socializing together after the games.

“On our last league night [before COVID-19], everybody was hanging out in the broom stacking, relishing the idea of having our own dedicated ice,” said Tibbetts. Today, the club shares ice with a hockey rink, which means the curling sheet is often uneven and chipped from skates. Tibbetts recalled, “We realized if we’re going to have a lot of extra time on our hands, let’s see if we can put a business and financial plan together. Just last week, we incorporated.” They are now actively looking for premier properties.

Goering and Tibbetts have a personal investment and a similar appreciation, though they came to curling differently.

“My best friend here in New York was after me for a couple of years to come and join him,” said Goering. It didn’t take much after that. “The camaraderie, excitement, and general atmosphere captured me. The way that the points on a single end with a single stone can shift dramatically is absolutely amazing.”

Goering’s enthusiasm grew along with his skills. “Once I got to the point where I could consistently throw the stone where I wanted,” he said, “then I started getting interested in learning about the strategies around placements and how each person in the lineup has a different role to play. There’s just so much complexity you don’t have to know up front, but it keeps you interested.”

Tibbetts’ exposure came from the top. Growing up in Minneapolis, a high school classmate was a member of the 2006 U.S. women’s team. When he moved to Brooklyn in April 2019, he chose an apartment within walking distance of the rink.

“My introduction to the sport was getting a hands-on lesson from my friend,” said Tibbetts. “You couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the sport than the Olympic connection. This is one of the few sports where you get to play on the same surface as the absolute best in the world. You can learn how to play in 15 minutes and spend the rest of your life mastering it.”

This lifelong skill leads to remarkable age diversity in the sport. He recalled a match in St. Paul where he and his team of 30-year-olds played a team of septuagenarians. “We’re supposed to be in the prime of our lives,” he said. “They just absolutely destroyed us. I don’t know of another game where one can play competitively across generations and have parity between age, gender, and have fun with anyone who happens to show up.”

The same can be said of cultural diversity in the sport. With its spirit of friendly competition, it brings together players from different backgrounds. “One of the great things I love, and it’s codified in the rules, is that you’re there to play your best, but you’re not there to antagonize the other team,” Tibbetts said. And the broom stacking adds to the spirit. “You get to know something about your opponents. New York City is such a melting pot. We have such an opportunity here to bring people from different cultures together.”

And what better way, Tibbetts added, to create some Scandinavian hygge in the winter months. “Getting together every week with people you enjoy being around, having some fun, and then sitting close together around the table with some good food and a cold drink. Isn’t that hygge right there?”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit Kleinerprweb.com; beyondthecold.com.